Motherjane: An Indian Tale
How one band from the South, injected the East into the West, and then took it places
By Bobin James
I am a sucker for stories. And Motherjane (they prefer spelling it with a lower-case ‘m’) sure has a lot of them. There’s the one about guitarist Deepu Sasidharan walking – and occasionally running – the fifteen-odd kilometres back home everyday past midnight from the Kochi, Kerala, hotel he used to play at. Only so that he could save up the money to buy his first guitar unit. “The last bus would be at 9:30, and autos would be too expensive,” says Sasidharan. “And at night, the street dogs get really wild, chasing bikes and people. So I would collect small stones in my pocket to fling at them, and mark out spots on the road which had stones I could pick up the next day,” he says. “A true rock musician,” laughs vocalist Suraj Mani. Then there is the story about how lead guitarist, Baiju Dharmajan, used to keep his homemade guitar pedal from falling apart using cellotape. “Good equipment was not easy to come by in those days,” says the soft-spoken guitarist. And then there is the story of a young John Thomas seeing a drum kit for the first time in his life. “Pop used to take me The International Hotel [in
The story of Motherjane itself begins back in 1996 when Thomas formed the band in 1996 alongwith bassist Clyde Rozario to stand in for another band that had backed out. “I was the cultural secretary at
And the Ancient Mariner is where one of the most important chapters of Motherjane’s story began. Sometime in August 2000, an engineer running an airconditioning dealership in
I have a dream that consumes me
I bring along a simple question
Can your perception be my reality
And mine become an intrusion?
- ‘Disillusioned’ (Insane Biography, 2002)
“The title came first. I had never written before and I was sitting there, when John comes and says, ‘Why don’t you write a song called ‘Disillusioned’? You look disillusioned, you know…’ ” says Suraj Mani of his personal introduction to the world of writing lyrics. And he believes ‘Disillusioned’ came from the personal dreams of each band member, of making music, in the most immediate context. “We realised that we were all singing about the same thing. When I am saying ‘sing,’ I am also talking about playing. So I sang ‘Disillusioned’ the way I felt it, John played the way he felt it, Clyde and Rex, the way they did.” And everyone brought in their personal influences: Thomas his death metal, Mani his classic rock, Baiju his progressive and Rozario his country music. “It didn’t matter what the style was. We met thematically. And that provided a good framework [of working] for us,” says Mani, the spokesperson for the band. The guys would come up with a general theme for a song and then jam about on it. “It’s almost like a conversation between friends. Sometimes one guy will talk a lot. Sometimes another guy won’t say much, but when he does want to say something, he will say something very forceful. Other times, another guy goes off on a tangent that is very valid and very relevant. It’s very liberating to make music like that,” he continues.
Work on the originals continued in the same manner for about six months. Then things took a detour: Suraj Mani had to move back to Bengaluru. But this didn’t stop the flow of music, it only changed the style of working a bit. “We had made five songs while I was in
Insane Biography dropped in on the then-underground Indian originals scene in 2002 to receive great acclaim. It wasn’t everyday that Indian rock delivered such a well-produced album of originals. I remember getting introduced to this album by an excited friend in the university town of
The first album, was, in Suraj Mani’s words, “a lot about life.” “You know they say that when an author is writing something, the first one is easy, because he writes about his life till then. But what does he do for the second one?” he laughs. The nine tracks brought in a sound unheard from Indian bands, until then, backed by mature songwriting, too.
Mature songwriting as is evident in these lines of inspiration in ‘Walk On’: “I’ll trade all my footsteps for a shot at tomorrow/Tattoo my intentions across these streets of time/And fight till the future is once again mine.”
And the lines of observation in ‘Maya’: “Sold into a brothel/Girlchild is just fifteen/Maya the name suits her well/This little life has never been.”
And the meditative lines of ‘Questions’: “Will I ever burn these bridges/I’ve built so strong and so sure/Or bound by my need for them/Will I linger by these shores?”
Motherjane began gigging extensively on the back of Insane Biography. But very soon, guitarist Rex Vijayan exited the line-up. “After the first album, Rex left because he wanted to pursue a different kind of music,” says Mani. But the success of the first album also meant that the band started gigging a lot. “We spent a few years with stand-in guitarists but didn’t have a permanent guy.” Until Deepu Sasidharan stepped into the picture. A guitarist who was playing with 13AD in
“Deepu came and did four-five gigs with us, and then we started feeling the vibe again, and started composing the second album,” recalls Mani. “Sometimes when a new person comes into the room, the vibe changes. A tough part of being in a band is opening yourself up and being vulnerable in front of four other people. You find opening up difficult in a marriage – imagine opening up in front of four others. Anyway, when that happened, the music started coming differently… and we liked it. So we just went on that trip,” he says. This second album turned out to be Maktub, which incidentally turned out tops on Rolling Stone
Guitarist Baiju Dharmajan (who incidentally had won the Best Guitarist trophy at 3rd Indian Rock Awards for ‘Broken’), had in a 2008 interview, told me that Insane Biography was the “white man’s music” and how this time around, they were trying to get the Indian sound into their music. And the band nailed it, most audibly courtesy his Carnatic guitarlines. Suraj Mani insists though that Maktub’s unique sound is “actually the five of us sounding like that.” Drummer Thomas plays the chenda, a South Indian drum, on the record, adding to the “Eastern sound.” Mani says, “I think what has happened to us is that we are becoming a progressive Carnatic rock band. The element of rock is very much there. Then there are these progressive bits of from rock. And there are definitely variations from the normal Carnatic style. All of it is brought together into a very rock format, so it works well.”
“We are all influenced to various degrees by Indian music. What’s important is how naturally it comes to us. If it happens by default, we keep it there,” says Mani. “The honesty is important. If you start using it unnecessarily, you will start hearing that it’s not coming from the inside,” he continues. “There are no blank moves happening here – there’s a lot of synchronicity happening on the record,” says Thomas.
While only Thomas and Suraj Mani eventually got their 2009 JD Rock Awards nominations traded in for wins, one thing was crystal clear – with Maktub, Motherjane’s time had come. Any college festival worth its salt had to have a headlining performance by this five-piece progressive rock/metal band. Over the course of the last couple of years, the band had gathered some very impressive feathers in their hat: An opening slot at the inaugural Rock in
When I meet the band at their hotel the day after the MySpace Secret Show gig in Mumbai, in May, the guys are all lounging together in one room. It’s a Saturday and they have lots of time to kill before they head off to the airport to catch their respective flights - Suraj Mani to Bengaluru and the rest of the band to
The band is looking relaxed but certainly high on the reception accorded to them the previous evening. When it comes to Mumbai rock audiences, there are two ways of looking at it – that they are too closeminded about the bands they like or that they are very finicky about their tastes. Either way, they are not particularly known for being very welcoming of bands from outside the city. Usually. But this gig – the first of MySpace
© Bobin James/Rolling Stone